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4 Apr 2024

Neha Wadekar, the Guardian

Madagascar: Local residents to take legal action in the UK against Rio Tinto for alleged waterways contamination

"Rio Tinto’s Madagascar mine may face lawsuit over pollution claims", 4 Apr 2024

...Rio Tinto is facing a likely lawsuit in an English court brought by the UK-based law firm Leigh Day on behalf of people living in villages near a mine in Madagascar.

In a letter of claim... the villagers accuse Rio Tinto of contaminating the waterways and lakes that they use for domestic purposes with elevated and harmful levels of uranium and lead, which pose a serious risk to human health.

The mine, operated by Rio Tinto subsidiary QIT Madagascar Minerals (QMM), extracts ilmenite, a major source of titanium dioxide, which is mainly used as a white pigment in products such as paints, plastics and paper. It also produces monazite, a mineral that contains highly-sought-after rare-earth elements used to produce the magnets in electric vehicles and wind turbines.

Leigh Day commissioned testing of people’s blood lead levels in the area around the mine as part of its research. According to the claim... the testing shows that 58 people living around the mine have elevated levels of lead, and the majority of cases exceed the threshold at which the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends clinical and environmental interventions, 5 micrograms per decilitre. The claim alleges that the most likely cause of the elevated levels is a result of QMM’s mine processes...

While a relatively small sample, Leigh Day’s blood lead level testing results are a significant development that may for the first time quantify the detrimental health impact their clients allege are posed by QMM...

“We have received the letter from Leigh Day,” said the Rio Tinto spokesperson, who declined to comment further on the allegations. The spokesperson pointed to a published report that states that the company’s recent water analysis had not detected metals, including uranium and lead, that had previously been identified as potential concerns.

Madagascar’s environmental regulator, the National Office for the Environment, or ONE, says it has periodically monitored QMM’s activities over the past decade and has tested the water after previous complaints about contamination. “In the face of these accusations, ONE requested several expert analyses … the results of which indicated no contamination of surface waters nor mining sites,” Hery Rajaomanana, ONE’s director of environmental integration and sustainable development, said in March.

Rio Tinto, which had net earnings of $12.4bn in 2022, has a troubled track record in Madagascar. Locals, civil society groups and media have accused the company of damaging the endangered forest, threatening rare endemic species, forcing villagers off their land without proper compensation, destroying fishers’ livelihoods and failing to honour its promises to employ local people. Communities have been protesting against the mine almost since its inception.

“QMM operates in a highly sensitive area from a water and broader environmental perspective,” wrote a Rio Tinto spokesperson, who declined to attach a name to the statements from the company. “We are committed to working to address any specific issues that community members raise, and to engaging in constructive dialogue on how we can mitigate impacts of our operations while generating tangible and sustainable benefits for our host communities.”...